Little Rock School District officials are actively developing a plan for what the next school year will look like for students and educators amid a sharp rise in the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
But Superintendent Mike Poore and new Deputy Superintendent Dr. Keith McGee had few definitive details to share with the LRSD Board at its Thursday agenda meeting.
The meeting began with a somber note. Board president Vicki Hatter noted the death of Terry Elementary teacher Kim Maginn. After a moment of silence, Poore noted that Maginn’s family had publicly shared that she died of COVID-19 and was unvaccinated. Maginn’s daughters said they’d pleaded with their 63-year-old mother to get the vaccine, but said she’d been stubbornly against it. They urged others to get vaccinated.
Poore reiterated something he’d shared earlier with the State Board of Education: The district has decided to extend the enrollment period in its new Ignite Digital Academy virtual school until the first day of school. It also will allow students to return to in-person learning at the end of the first semester. Earlier in the summer, the district had said it would require a one-year commitment from families. Board member Jeff Wood said he wanted the district to explore allowing students to shift from the virtual school back to in-person school after nine weeks.
Unlike last year when teachers simultaneously taught in-person and virtual students, those who enroll in the Ignite Academy will have dedicated instructors. Students, however, will retain their spot at their home school and will receive counseling and meal services from the home school (or at least that has been the plan).
Poore also acknowledged that the district had to continue to work on its COVID leave policy, which has been controversial. On July 1, the district announced that employees will have to take personal leave, vacation time, sick leave or leave without pay if they are required to quarantine because they test positive for the virus or they are in close contact with someone else who tests positive. In the policy announcement, district leaders noted that the Arkansas Department of Health has said that fully vaccinated people don’t have to quarantine if they’re in close contact with an infected person unless they’re experiencing symptoms.
But Poore said the district was meeting with education and health leaders and planned to put a new proposal before the personnel policy committee.
Hatter asked McGee if in-person students would potentially continue to transition to virtual instruction in the case of outbreaks. McGee said they would and Poore added that, thanks to federal relief money, the district now has devices for every student and plenty of wi-fi hot spots for students in need.
The LRSD has $68.8 million left in the $99 million of federal aid it’s received, McGee told the board.
During the public comment period, several parents implored the district to defy a new state law that prevents any government from imposing mask mandates. Others suggested segregating vaccinated teachers and students from the unvaccinated.
Board member Ali Noland, an attorney, said she’d spent a lot of time researching what the district legally could do. The district can’t mandate mask or vaccines, she said. It can’t condition employment or education on being masked or vaccinated. It can’t discriminate in any way against students or educators who don’t wear masks or haven’t been vaccinated, she said. She guessed if the district decided to defy any laws, it would take someone about two hours to get an injunction from a judge. She suggested the district explore incentives for students or teachers to get vaccinated.
Poore reported that 67% of LRSD staff had been vaccinated during last school year. He guessed that the actual number was closer to 70% because some employees likely have gotten vaccinated over the summer.
Noland also suggested that the district make clear that it will enforce parents’ wishes about masks. “My child needs to wear her mask all day. I’m going to expect that to be enforced,” she said by way of example.
Social distancing will likely not be possible in many buildings unless large numbers of students opt for virtual school. Noland said administrators should be straight with families about whether it’s happening. She also asked about ventilation upgrades.
Poore said the district had identified 10 buildings in need of ventilation upgrades, which would cost around $10 million, which could be paid for with federal aid money. But several of those buildings also need new roofs, which the aid money can’t be used for. So in some cases, the LRSD could be stuck waiting to see if voters approve a millage extension.
The board has scheduled a special work session at 10 a.m.* Friday to discuss the millage.
*A previous version of this post said the work session would be held at 5:30 p.m., which is what the LRSD website says.